Flying: supporting development, or cultural cover-ups & democratic deficits?


The view from the panoramic windows of Cairo airport reveal great stretches of grey tarmac fading out into beige sand and vague desert in the distance. Perched on the grey tarmac are 3 winged creatures, sometimes the odd little yellow and black van skirts across the expanse like a bee from flower to flower, and sometimes a cockroach-like flat yellow machine appears from under the planes, before creeping across the tarmac and attaching itself to another. The view is too big for humans, it feels too big to exist within, and its more than I can take in. Yet rely on it we do.

The blue kaleidescoped eagle head of Horus, the ancient Egyptian sky deity, that adorns each tail fin of each plane flying on behalf of EgyptAir is a symbol of the expansion and metropolis of the Middle East that Egypt was, and still seeks to be.

Does having an airport really make that much difference? Do humans rely on our ability to fly so much that our ‘development’ requires effective and safe flying facilities?

I am interested in this question as I sit pondering the purpose of values and principles if they are so porous that I, who had pledged not to fly where possible (not travelling if necessary to avoid flying), find myself on one of many flights I have taken in the last year. I still believe in all my reasons for not flying (see here for those) but circumstances have dictated testing my application of my principles perhaps more than expected lately. And so the infrastructure that I choose to live my life within, is worth looking at for the choices it offers people to apply their principles.

The answer to that original question is a clear yes; the attraction to flying infrastructure investment in Egypt (and other countries) exist on many levels, lets look at some of them.

Firstly, to attract international business, the country must be physically accessible. As North Africa has no railway or ferries running across the width of North African countries, travel between those countries (if its not going to take days by bus) will have to be by flight, otherwise the countries remain side by side but largely disconnected.
Ferries between the European mainland, from Italy, Greece, Turkey etc, have existed and some still run, but they take about 24 hours and are often suspended when there are uncertain political conditions in the region (which is most of the last couple of years). Travelling from the East to Egypt, has its problems too at the moment: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Israel to name but a few sources of instability that either hamper regular services, or simply put people travelling through the country in unnecessary danger. Though there are some very good rail links thanks to the Colonialism of the last 150 years or so.
And the big one, travelling from America, would require a ship to the European mainland or African continent, and then you come across the same non-flying transport I’ve detailed above. (For overland travel anywhere in the world, check this bible of a website out.)

I faced these facts when trying to get home this time without flying, time was less of an issue, so it seemed possible. But the key link in the chain, getting onto the European mainland where there is good overland transport, was severed by the only prospect being getting a ship from Egypt’s north coast to Iskenderun, a Turkish port right next to the border with Syria, currently filling up with Syrian refugees making their way out of Syria.

There are some alternative modes of getting between countries (not just my dad’s prehistoric suggestion of getting to Qatar across the Saudi Desert by camel), like the ferry between Egypt’s east coast and Jordan, its quick, its a nice ride (so I’ve heard) and you avoid flying. But as with a lot of alternative means of transport, they are bitty; unless there are regular and reliable connections with other modes of transport, then the ferry/ train/ bus that you’ve found will leave you stranded, or will be one efficient part of a much longer and inefficient journey. This, in my relatively experienced view, is where alternatives to flying really fall down. Although they offer the scenic route, the one that gives you a real feel and sense of context for where you’re going (see my previous blog for more on these reasons) they don’t offer comfort through ease of travel, which when we’re talking business, is just not appropriate because this set of travellers do not have the time to really ‘experience’ their surroundings,. One very effective example that has managed to grasp the importance of this aspect is the EuroStar. The route between London and Paris (and connections further afield than Paris) has been equipped with a beautifully designed train, which makes for a comfortable ride, classy surroundings and has an ‘ethos’ of sophistication which beats hanging around in airline waiting rooms, equipping all travellers with the means, but really servicing the business community with what they want. And it has been a huge success.

So foreign business investment, which is seen as so key to developing countries (so key that Egypt has been chasing an IMF loan, with strict conditionalities and an open-door policy requirement, worth less than a quarter of its debts, just to get the ‘seal of approval’ that it provides for international business to invest with confidence) is always going to be a red line in terms of air travel; despite the fact it is arguable as to whether foreign investment should be the main mode of development for a country – how about self sufficiency and generating Egyptian answers to Egyptian problems? But that’s another story.

Second on Egypt’s priority list: tourism.
13% of Egypt’s economy relied on tourism pre-2011 uprisings, and 1 in 7 Egyptians were employed in the tourism sector, directly or indirectly (source here).
Whilst many tourists do want to experience some of the country they are in, a sizeable portion of Egypt’s tourism stems from middle aged European and Russian women wanting sun, sand and sea (read sun, sea and sex) and cheap package holidays; both of which do not require experiencing anything of the true Egypt while they lock themselves away in resorts where, in the words of Hisham Zaazou – Minister for Tourism, “booze and bikinis are allowed…”. So I was about to point out that sketchy travel methods which have gaps in between modes of transportation, and take longer than domestic flights across the country, allow travellers to experience more of the country, as they find themselves invited into people’s homes, shown around the village, touted into buying carpets, whatever it may be.
In fact, this is where flying could be considered to really help the tourism industry in Egypt, not only by providing ease of transit from A to B, but also by allowing tourists to go straight to their delusional secluded resorts of non-representational tourism (which they seek) and which Egyptian Authorities can misrepresent as ‘Egypt’ when huge swathes of the population live in poverty and struggle to get their subsidised bread. Works for everyone right?

Third use of a flying hub, diplomacy.
Egypt certainly used to occupy a strong diplomatic position within the region, providing the political gateway of Western Governments into the Middle East. So much so that Egypt has been used as the West’s main arbiter and native frontman, in peace and in ‘war’ (leaving aside permanent state of occupation), between Palestine and Israel.
It also has deep business interests in Western tax havens like the UK, with many of its Feloul (Mubarak supporters) business tycoons taking up residence in the UK or their ex-dictator’s assets being holed-up in UK tax havens (the UK is responsible for over one fifth of tax havens Worldwide through overseas territories and crown dependencies) – either way, they have vast political and economic diplomatic ties to Western countries. Diplomats are required to travel, and often at very short notice, flying is therefore the only realistic method of transportation for those in this business.

Fourthly and finally, education.
Authoritarian and ruling monarchies in the Middle East and the Gulf have long reigned partly through their commandeering of the educational systems in their countries. No dictatorship is complete without milking the education system for all its brain washing potential, or in some countries without squandering the opportunity to educate its youngest minds in critical thinking and knowledge sharing. The net result being highly ineffective education systems that leave their youngest generations short of the basic education standard acceptable. Yet whilst this is accepted as sufficient for large portions of their populations, because poverty and their nationality means they are unlikely to be able to leave the country for a better education or job prospects elsewhere, there are middle and upper class elites who can pay for their children to be educated outside the country, affording them aspirations outside their countries borders. Taking only the UK, students from the Middle East studying in the UK in 2011/12 totalled 26,645. It is for these people that educational opportunities are outsourced, with their Governments then proudly announcing X% of the new generation of Saudi Arabia (for example) have been educated abroad as an achievement. What these Governments/Monarchies are really doing is exporting their educational responsibility, and also, to their detriment, the creativity and skills sets that developing countries desperately need (Read Tariq Ramadan’s ‘Arab Awakening’ for more exploration of this subject). Without flights leaving to the Western world of educational opportunity, this kind of travel purpose would not be able to exist on the scale it currently does, and so it could be said to support the educational status quo, which is severely lacking in lots of Middle Eastern countries.

So clearly, flying is already built into our global infrastructures, at the expense of investment in alternative means of transport. This I would argue, is part of any open-door policy Egypt has used in the past, and is currently reviving under the Muslim Brotherhood. Access to Egypt, or to get out of Egypt, is promoting some detrimental stakes in its development. International business investment in a country is inevitable, but in Egypt it has a scary history driving deeply inequitable methods of development, for example incentivising the trampling of local small scale farmers in favour of international corporate agri-business that cuts out the middle man and lends Egypt no control over its own agricultural landscape. Educational outsourcing maintains the wheel of a countries best and brightest students leaving the country and inevitably staying there to start their career because they have no freedom of innovation or career security under authoritarian or unjust regimes.  Getting the most educated out of the country leaves the country to degenerate or stand still, whilst those who remain in the country are stuck in their cycles of poverty as entrenched non-participatory governance systems keep them there. Flying is the ultimate tool of globalisation, for better or for worse.

I’m not trying to argue that flying maintains dictatorships; I am trying to explore some of the arguments for flying which are used  from a whole-country perspective (rather than just business or individuals), and how the reasoning, if applied, manifests on a large scale. Clearly, investment in flying infrastructure has become a given on the generic list of developmental priorities, but in the wake of continuing public mobilisation in Brazil over the huge rise in public transport fares, felt worst by the poorest not the elite in power, we can and should expect more from on the ground transport infrastructure in our countries, and its time our Governments knew this.

Protests in Brazil - 17 Jun 2013 - by Agencia Estado/Rex


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